‘There are weird men out there…’

'Drug rape' has been exposed as an urban myth, yet some London students say they'll still be putting a thumb over the top of their Becks.

Suzy Dean

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Topics Politics

According to campaign groups like Women Against Rape, more young women, and increasingly men, are waking up after a blurred night of passion and telling themselves their drink must have been spiked. Sharon Hawkins from West Cumbria Rape Crisis Centre said the number of people contacting them about ‘drug rape’ had increased significantly over the past few years.

After years of campaigning against drug-rape, and the drugs allegedly associated with it, it now appears that the problem is not grounded in reality. A new study from the Association of Chief Police Officers into the role of drugs in rape found that between November 2004 and October 2005 only two women, out of 120 alleged drug-rape cases, had actually been spiked with a date-rape drug. Most had just been drunk.

This is in sharp contrast to the way the problem has been posed in recent years. In 2003 Superintendent Kevin Maidment of Wiltshire Police said: ‘Drug-assisted rape is one of the UK’s fastest growing crimes.… By launching the “Has Your Drink Been Spiked?” campaign, we aim to raise awareness of this important issue and to highlight the dangers of leaving your drinks unattended, at any time, any place, anywhere.’ (1)

I went to find out how this report has been received at two London university campuses. The campaign against ‘drug rape’ has been pushed vociferously by student unions and university authorities. In universities and colleges, leaflets offering advice on how to stay safe from the threat of being spiked are everywhere. There are posters on the back of almost every toilet door, warning students ‘Do not leave your drink unattended’ or ‘If drinking from a bottle, keep your thumb over the top’.

Lucinda, in her third year at the London College of Fashion, claims that drug-rape is still a problem because the police study did show that two girls had been drug-raped; she suggests that the various scary posters ‘have probably saved many girls from the same ordeal’. Yet if the number of drug-rape cases is so low, doesn’t that suggest this kind of fearmongering is unnecessary, and may even cause undue alarm and fear? ‘Girls need to be careful and the posters are just reminding them of that’, said Lucinda.

Male students agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Chris Mooney, student security officer at the London School of Economics (LSE), reckons the report probably wasn’t extensive enough and claims to know ‘three girls who had definitely been spiked’.

The campaigns are not just targeting drug rape. They now also focus on the dangers of ‘drink rape’. In the past, buying someone an extra drink, or a double instead of a single, was viewed as a sly seduction trick. Yet now it is labelled ‘drink-spiking’ (where you spike someone’s drink with more drink) and looked upon as sexual coercion. In Northern Ireland there are beermats in student bars that say, ‘Remember, alcohol is the main rape drug’. Even the act of buying a pint for someone you fancy in the student bar is seen as suspicious behaviour.

Students seem generally to support the official government and union warnings about the dangers of getting drunk and leaving your vodka and coke lying around, even if there is only a very slim chance someone will do something to your drink. ‘There’s plenty of weird men out there and I’d rather a girl approach me with caution until she gets to know me than leave her drink laying around and end up with a nutcase’, said Chris Mooney. At some universities, including Dundee, student officials put a swizzle stick in drinks left unattended by freshers, bearing the message, ‘The next time it could be drugs’. Talk about putting the dampers on a night out.

Even bar managers seem happy enough to go along with these campaigns. Alistair Dean, bar manager at one of LSE’s residences, says that even though the media have blown the problem of ‘drug rape’ out of proportion, still ‘the posters are only warning people’.

But these constant warnings about the dangers of predatory men (and women) are not harmless. Telling people to be vigilant when there isn’t any great threat – and when they are simply socialising with their peers – harms the natural relationships that develop between young men and women. It sets up men (and some women) as potential menaces, and women (and some men) as eternal victims. And yet the students I spoke to thought this kind of scaremongering intrusion was worth it, in the name of ‘raising awareness’ about drug rape – even though drug rape is an exceptionally rare occurrence.

There is a widespread acceptance among young people that the state can, and often should, regulate our behaviour. Everything from banning smoking to taxing alcohol are seen as positive interventions by a generation that seems less insistent on keeping a divide between our public and private lives. We should shake off such passive conformism and tell student authorities and government officials to take down their patronising posters, and butt out of our bars and bedrooms

Suzy Dean is a third year student at the London School of Economics.

(1) Spiked drinks warning issued, BBC News, 3 December 2003

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